The conventional wisdom is that the British Army’s long experience with imperial policing imbued it with a very sophisticated understanding of counterinsurgency, the political nature of war, and the imperative of civic-military cooperation. Rory Stewart, who as a “governorate coordinator” for the Coalition Provisional Authority in southern Iraq served in a capacity that echoed the colonial administrators of the British Empire, would probably disagree. His 2006 memoir, The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq, suggests a British Army that zealously guarded its prerogatives from what it regarded as outside political interference and thus often operated at cross-purposes with CPA policy. The governorate coordinators theoretically wielded absolute power in their provinces, but in reality their inability to command coalition forces left them mostly impotent, with the ability to disburse CPA funds their only real means of influence among their Iraqi subjects. This militarization was to be expected in the Sunni areas, which were gripped by insurgency from an early date in the occupation, but it is surprising that it also occurred in the British sectors to the south, which were mostly peaceful until the Sadrist uprisings began in 2004.
In one instance, following the assassination of the chief of police in Maysan province, Stewart managed to head off a civil war by arranging the voluntary surrender into CPA custody of a high profile suspect. Unfortunately, when the man dutifully reported to the CPA compound, the British army guards arrested him and added him to the military detention system:
I was enraged. This man, whom we had no reason to believe was guilty, had walked in because he had trusted my promise, witnessed by two hundred people, that I would see he was looked after. The military had not informed me when he arrived, nor given me any opportunity to speak to him. And now they had interned him two hundred miles away. I told the political adviser and the colonel that this was not acceptable. They shrugged and said they would pass the message up, but by sending him to Umm Qasr they had lost control of him – he was in the military system, and only the General could decide what happened to him next. (160)
Later on, as violence increased throughout the country, Stewart asked the military to improve the defenses of the CPA compound in Amara, which were woefully inadequate for the deteriorating security environment.
The major in charge of security in Amara believed that increasing our defenses might actually encourage attack, by making us look less like a humanitarian outfit and more like a military camp. When I continued to insist that terrorists would not hesitate to target humanitarian offices, the normally mild man exploded. “You have your talents, Rory,” he said, struggling to control himself in front of the other people in his office, “but security is nothing to do with you. Back off,” he spat. “Just back off.” I had to ask him to continue the conversation outside on the balcony.
The major had disappointed me and I had enraged him. He knew I was no military expert and he thought I was getting above myself. I knew that security measures were often wasteful and unnecessary and that security was his responsibility; and because I needed good relations with the military and liked the major, I would have preferred to back off. But he was blind to how quickly the insurgency was spreading and how soon we would be attacked with truck bombs and mortars. (226-7)
Thus the irony that, in protecting its monopoly on security policy in the province, the British Army refused to upgrade security.
The army was also very reluctant to become involved in local Iraqi politics. This was understandable from a military point of view, but it was disastrous for the work of the CPA governors. In January 2004, the Coalition organized the election of an Iraqi governor in Maysan. Just as the new administration was taking hold, rival factions staged a demonstration outside the governor’s new offices and British soldiers allowed the mob to loot the building.
I asked the company commander how this had happened when the British soldiers were guarding the building. He reminded me that his soldiers had been seriously injured during the afternoon and that he had no desire to get drawn into a squabble between the governor and the people. Nor did he want to escalate the situation, create unnecessary enemies, and cause more resentment against the Coalition by killing Iraqis. He added that he thought the British public and politicians would not think it was worth losing a soldier’s life to protect a piece of empty property. He had no more to say; he was not interested in justifying a military decision to a civilian. (276-7)
Stewart and his fellow CPA officials were then confronted by the Iraqi governor:
“…why did your soldiers not protect this building from the crowd? You sent home my security force, dissolved the police line, and took responsibility for the building. How did you then let the crowd get in and steal everything?
One of us replied, “Governor, maybe it is better that a little computer equipment gets stolen than more people get killed.”
And he said: “What are you talking about? Would you let the mob go stampeding into your office and loot your computer equipment?” We had no answer. Of course, we would have shot anyone who tried to break into our compound. (279-80)
Anecdotes such as these are not enough to make any generalizations about British military performance, but they suggest an army dangerously overconfident in its counterinsurgency skills. It took the British some time to realize that Iraq was not Northern Ireland; patrolling without helmets or flak jackets was not a gesture widely valued in the Arab world (at least not in the manner that the British intended).
Still, it’s hard not to sympathize with the military’s overall approach to the Iraqi political scene. One cannot read Stewart’s memoir without a sense incredulity as he recounts his incessant politicking between local factions, all toward the grand design of bringing democracy to Iraq, the absurdity of which he implicitly acknowledges with the deadpan humor that pervades the book. Perhaps the British Army’s proclivity to minimize political involvement was based more on foresight of the inevitable than on military caste arrogance.
But at least when the lead started to fly the British were combat effective. The same could not be said for the Italians, whose experience in Iraq reinforced their country’s reputation for military incompetence. In March 2004, Stewart transferred over to the neighboring Dhi Qar province, which was garrisoned by a contingent of Italian troops. The Italians were apparently under orders from Rome to avoid casualties at all costs, so they avoided combat with an enthusiasm that bordered on cowardice. This certainly encouraged the Sadrist uprisings that later consumed the province.
In May 2004, the CPA compound in Nasiriyah was besieged by Sadr’s militia. The compound was located on the opposite side of the Euphrates from the Italian base, and because the main formation of Italian troops was unwilling to leave the base, the compound was defended by only a couple platoons of Italian soldiers – who were obviously eager to rejoin their comrades across the river – and a handful of private security contractors. The Italians refused to assault the mortar positions that were bombarding the compound. Instead, they would abandon their rooftop positions when under mortar fire, leaving the compound vulnerable to an assault. At one point, Sadrist representatives visited the office and promised “peace forever” if only the Italians would abandon the city and leave the coalition civilians defenseless. To Stewart’s utter horror, the Italian commander seriously entertained the idea. Taking him aside, Stewart invoked the First Afghan War to make him see sense:
I took the guard commander into the sun and leaned on the balcony. “They think we are weak and on the run. They make a ‘final demand,’ promise peace if we accept it, and then attack us again and make a new demand. This,” I said, feeling increasingly pompous, “is what happened to us in Kabul in 1842. First, the Afghans said if we would just move down from the citadel to the camp it would be peace forever. So we did. Then they said if we would just hand over our heavy weapons it would be peace forever. So we did. Then if we just agreed to leave the country, the would allow us safe passage and not attack us. And so we set off and they massacred the whole army – fourteen thousand soldiers – one by one in the retreat. That is what will happen here. They will keep making demands until we are entirely isolated in this compound with no protection force and then they will come over the walls and kill us all. That is the bottom line. If we accept this, we are all dead.” (357)
The civilian staff of the compound – excluding Stewart, himself a former infantry officer of the Black Watch – was eventually evacuated. As the siege continued, it was the private security contractors that managed the defense of the compound while the Italians were hiding from the mortar fire:
They had manned the machine guns on the roof, kept the enemy heads down, monitored the incoming fire, and made suggestions about patrols and air support. Through all of this they had been in their element: considered, rational, matter of fact. Between them they had a couple hundred years of military experience and they knew far more than I did. I had only to smile, look calm, and gather them every half hour, and listen, clarify, summarize, and send their views to Baghdad. A little later, I heard a Canadian general say military contractors were mercenaries whose loyalty could not be relied on. I told him these contractors had risked their lives manning guns that soldiers had abandoned. A hundred of them could have brought order back to the province. (372)
And what finally broke the siege and cleared out the Sadrists? The raw firepower of an AC-130 Spectre gunship:
There was no more mortar fire. The gunship stayed in the air all night, and I went to sleep to the th-thump of its cannon. It killed people at their mortar positions and as they fled. A translator recognized one of the Sadrist clerics lying dead on his street. The next morning I woke to a bustling city, all the shops and schools open, the translators and cleaners again at the door. The insurgency, such as it had been, had been solved with a single plane. (370-1)
At that point in the war, the southern provinces were still occupied by non-U.S. coalition forces. For some reason, however, American troops had acquired a very ruthless reputation, and on one occasion Stewart frightened provincial notables into cooperation by raising the prospect of a U.S. garrison.